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No strings on me

The idiot’s guide to Arkansas’s (present and future) wireless world


WIRELESS: At Sufficient Grounds.
  • WIRELESS: At Sufficient Grounds.

Walk into a coffee shop in Little Rock these days — not a cuppajoe place, but one of those soy-mocha-latte-skinny coffee shops where you’ll always find a potted plant and a copy of the New York Times — and you’re likely to see something that existed only in science fiction just a few years ago: up to a dozen people, busily clicking away on laptop computers. Wireless laptops.

While those looking to access the Internet were once chained to a bulky box capped with a refrigerator-colored monitor, not to mention a desk, Wireless Fidelity (Wi-Fi) technology (you tap into the web via a radio signal) and the often-free-of-charge Wi-Fi “hotspots” that have sprung up in recent years because of it mean that — for Internet users at least — the world is increasingly a place with no strings attached. While prices for laptop computers, Personal Digital Assistants (PDAs) and wireless Internet cards made them mostly prestige items for hardcore surfers only a few years ago, sinking costs, simplified technologies and a growing number of free and cheap “hotspots” have made Wi-Fi a movement for the masses in the 21st century. In the mid-1990s, when the Wi-Fi boom was just starting, a wireless interface card could cost upwards of $200. Now they’re built into most laptops and many desktops, free of charge.

Innovations like this have been met with a growing worldwide enthusiasm for all things Wi-Fi, one that shows no signs of slowing. According to the 2004 “Face of the Web” poll by Ipsos-Insight, a consulting group that studies technological trends, the number of worldwide Wi-Fi users rose by 29 percent last year, with more than 171 million people accessing the Internet using some form of wireless device — laptop, PDA, mobile phone or other up-to-the-second gadgets not seen this side of a James Bond movie 10 years ago.

As with most things, Arkansas is a bit behind the right and left coasts when it comes to adopting these new technologies, but not that far. The Internet is, as in all things, the last great equalizer — which includes blasting away the fashion lag that leaves us here in flyover country a trend or two behind. Wi-Fi is catching on quickly here, gaining ground on more traditional Internet delivery systems like cable and DSL modems thanks to a few innovative thinkers in our state. They’ll tell you: Wireless technology still can’t put a Dick Tracy-style video communicator on your wrist, but it’s coming — and sooner than you think.

Good-looking, decidedly non-geeky, and with the surefooted faith of a Baptist preacher when it comes to the bright future of wireless technology, Jack Tipshus is with computing services at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Over the last five years, he’s sweated out the details of making most of the campus into one huge Wi-Fi hotspot.

It’s hard to imagine a better guy for the job. Tipshus is a self-confessed gadget junkie, who started carrying his first cell phone in 1988, a black monster the size and weight of a gold brick, which he said probably dealt him some permanent injury from the microwaves cooking off it. Listen to this: He’s had an e-mail address since 1979.

The day we met at UALR so he could walk me through his efforts at plumbing the entire campus for Wi-Fi — library, classrooms, galleries, public spaces, baseball diamond (no kidding), everything — the pockets of his snazzy black suit were alive with what seemed to my pen-and-paper mind like Buck Rogers-grade goodies: PDAs that could make free long-distance phone calls, tiny cell phones that could probably peel an apple in one long, continuous strip if you pushed the right buttons. Five years ago on Valentine’s Day, Tipshus helped usher in the wireless world at UALR, going hot with one of the state’s first Wi-Fi equipped buildings — a system that covered the small common room in the Donaghey Student Union. Though configured for up to 500 users, the system registered 11 that first day. By the end of the year, the system had around 300 registered users. Now, with every inch of public space on the campus covered by Tipshus’ carefully-designed cluster of overlapping Wi-Fi clouds, and high-tech directional antennas that beam Wi-Fi access to far-flung outposts like UALR’s Benton center and Bowen School of Law, the system has around 1,700 registered users, and could support well over 10,000 more without breaking a sweat. On a slow afternoon at the end of the spring semester, a quick check showed 330 users wirelessly online. It’s a number Tipshus said can spike much higher during peak periods. (Not everyone is welcome, however. Citing the need to preserve what he called both a utility and a resource for the UALR community, Tipshus said Wi-Fi access was limited to students, faculty and staff, alumni, and pre-approved guests to the campus.)

That lackluster Valentine’s Day kickoff five years ago notwithstanding, when the project was just starting out, Tipshus knew that Wi-Fi was something that would inevitably catch on with UALR’s faculty and students — and something UALR would have to provide for. “Students are technologically savvy, and we expected that they would begin to bring these devices to the university,” he said. “The question was, how were we going to allow them to connect? This just made sense. We took the wire out of the picture and gave them the ability to go wherever they want to go. They don’t have to think, ‘What building am I in, and where is the hot zone?’ ” Amy Barnes is director of public relations at UALR. She said Wi-Fi was something UALR had been bullish on from the beginning. Though the university has a number of hardwired computer labs on campus and an additional Cyber Cafe, Barnes said the volume of students looking to connect at any given time made Wi-Fi the obvious choice. Looking around at the Cyber Cafe’s rows of computer terminals, all packed with students looking to get online, she said, “Every hardline computer around here is in use, we have people standing in line, we’ve got labs across campus with people waiting in line to use computers. So many of the students who come here today have laptops… they don’t have to wait in line now. They can go ahead and get their work out of the way.” It’s a culture the university seeks to foster by offering information on campus Wi-Fi access to all new employees and students.

In addition to convenience for students, Tipshus said Wi-Fi can be the most practical solution for those in older buildings as well. On college campuses, where buildings are usually built to last and can date back to the days before telephones, much less mobile telephones, wireless technology is a good fit, Tipshus said, requiring none of the expensive and destructive drilling it would take to retrofit with hard lines. A few years back, Tipshus was called in to consult with UALR’s sister university in Graz, Austria, for just this reason. “They have very old, 16th-century buildings,” Tipshus said. “They wanted to use some wireless technology because it’s not practical for them to go boring holes in their fantastic historical buildings to drop all that wire in. We provided them with some consultation to help them get that technology in there.”

Tipshus and Barnes said the technology has caught on at UALR in interesting new ways. Barnes points out that professors who once swore they’d never use computers in the classroom now swear by them. Tipshus talks about one high-profile project in which researchers from UALR are using wireless technology to take the typos out of their research into the diets of giant pandas.

“Instead of recording anything on paper, they send it directly as data,” he said. ”They scan a bar code, and it goes straight to the computer, to the spreadsheet, to the analysis. They take out the human error or anywhere in there where transcription is going on.”

Though it’s a word that strikes terror into some tech heads, Tipshus doesn’t seem rattled in the least when I bring up the O-word: obsolescence. In a technological world where one day’s compact disk is the next day’s 8-track, it has to be hard to gamble that the wireless rug isn’t about to be yanked out from under you.

Tipshus cites careful planning for his lack of gray hairs caused by the thought of the big O, even though the price of the system at UALR now runs upwards of $100,000 — all that spent on technology, with Tipshus mostly providing the grunt work of installation himself.

“We are very careful,” he said. “We select equipment that we know and trust. We do an enormous amount of research.”

Across town from UALR in a strip-mall walkup, across the cul-de-sac from a barber shop, the folks at World Lynx Internet are trying to stay one step ahead of their much larger competitors in terms of what’s just over the wireless horizon. In business since 1996 — one of the pioneering Internet service providers in Little Rock — the company is not so mom-and-pop as its humble headquarters makes it sound. It has 15,000 customers in 30 communities all over the state, and provides data services for nine of Arkansas’s independent telephone companies.

Though much of the shouting about wireless services has been connected to telecom giants like SBC and Sprint, for World Lynx general manager Ron Hern and network operator Craig Murders, their company’s smaller size is something of an advantage, allowing them to take wireless technology in interesting — and risky — new directions. This includes broadcasting Wi-Fi signal out to West Little Rock business travelers, and delivering high-speed wireless Internet access to residents of small towns where DSL and cable modems simply aren’t an option.

Currently, World Lynx offers customers in Lake Village wireless, high-speed Internet access, broadcasting their signal from an omni-directional antenna installed on top of the Lake Village water tower — a placement they secured in exchange for offering the city free Internet access. Hern said the system is configured to handle 250 customers, with a range of about four miles. Customers pay for service on a sliding scale, depending on the speed they want — $49 a month for the fastest connection. It’s a system Murders said could be easily set up in any of the communities where they provide wire-based Internet access.

While the system could potentially deliver up to 10 megabits per second, Hern said World Lynx limits it to around 4 megabits per second (the average DSL or cable modem can deliver 6 or 7 megabits per second).

“We limit ours to about 4 megabits,” Hern said. “Otherwise [individuals] would eat up too much bandwidth. It wouldn’t be cost effective to provide that much speed to everybody. “

Too, said Murders, there might be security concerns to deal with if they let their bandwidth run at full steam. “If one person down there gets an e-mail virus,” he said, “you can just imagine how many e-mails they could send at top bandwidth. We limit bandwidth for our bottom line, but also it’s for customer preservation too.” Though the World Lynx Wi-Fi project at Lake Village might seem like the shot heard round the world to those not in the know, Murders and Hern pointed out several drawbacks inherent to Wi-Fi technology — drawbacks that make the vision of a Wi-Fi world, where wireless internet access is as common as mobile phone access, mostly a pipe dream for now.

First, Hern said, the range of the system at Lake Village is helped by the fact that the city lies in the flat Delta. Existing Wi-Fi technology is severely limited by its dependence on “line-of-sight,” which means a user generally can’t log on unless they can physically see the broadcast antenna — an effect that can leave the system blinded by buildings and trees unless the user is very close to the source. That’s the reason, Hern said, that you simply can’t stick up Wi-Fi antennas on cell towers and expect it to work for everyone, and the reason why their similar West Little Rock system (the antenna is located on top of the World Lynx office) has a much more limited range. In a hilly area, or an area with heavy foliage, Hern said, “It would be very possible for you to have [Internet access] but not your neighbor to have it if there was a tree in the right place. The line of sight really limits that to some degree.”

Also stifling the growth of Big Wi-Fi is the cost involved, which Hern said can be as much $3,000 to $5,000 for each access point, and an additional $5,000 to $15,000 for each tower, depending on how high you wanted to go. Even after you make that expenditure, Murders said, if you’re not already established as an ISP — with an existing, high-bandwidth connection to the Internet — you’ll be all dressed up with no place to go.

“You do need an existing network,” Murders said, “because you do have to move all that traffic back to where you can get Internet access. Most of the big pipes, where you can get large chunks [of data] originate in Little Rock.” World Lynx Internet access requests made in Lake Village, for instance, are relayed back to Little Rock to tie in with their physical “point of presence.”

With the steady march of technology, however, both Murders and Hern agree that all these problems and more will most likely be solved in the near future — though Hern said, with not a little bit of grief on his face, that the biggest technological advances in wireless Internet technology in the next five years are likely to come not from Wi-Fi technology, but from the mobile phone industry. Currently, the industry is fielding phones that can connect to the Internet at around 300 kilobytes per second. In the labs, Murders said, researchers have pushed that number as high as 700 KB per second. At 1 megabit per second, which Sprint has promised soon, the wireless videophone can finally leave the pages of science fiction and slip in your pocket.

“Video conferencing would be a piece of cake at 1 meg,” Hern said. “It’ll be a pretty good picture, especially because the screen is so small. You can nearly get photo realism.”

Meanwhile, in a tower in downtown Little Rock, Aristotle network engineer Dallas Harmon is still a firm believer in Wi-Fi technology. He spends a good bit of every day focused on making sure his company’s hands will be firmly on what he calls “the gold ring,” the coming world where high-speed wireless Internet access will be as cheap, reliable and widely available as mobile phone service is now. “When you can get to a customer without using any kind of wire or infrastructure,” Harmon said, “basically, you win.”

It’s already a wireless world, Harmon points out; it’s just that people who aren’t plugged in to the technology don’t know it yet. For example, he points to the small orange trailers with solar panels that are often seen near Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department road construction sites.

“That has a wireless access point on it and it points back to the TCBY [now the Metropolitan Bank] tower,” Harmon said. “AHTD basically gives themselves live web cams of all their construction projects so they can look out there and see what’s going on.” Harmon also pointed out Internet-based “Wi-Fi Maps,” created by those involved in the underground hobby of “wardriving,” in which people drive around with a laptop computer and a high-powered Wi-Fi antenna, looking for both open and closed Wi-Fi coverage clouds. These maps pinpoint the precise location of nearly every Wi-Fi hotspot in the metropolitan U.S. These include several dozen hovering around Little Rock’s hotels, coffee shops, airport, and private companies — many of them readily accessible to anyone who wants to drive into the parking lot and flip open a laptop.

As exciting as it obviously is to him, Harmon sees current Wi-Fi technology in about the same way Henry Ford must have viewed the horse and buggy: adequate for now, but soon to go the way of the dodo. While Harmon said that Wi-Fi is good for a few customers in a coffee shop, and works well in a residential setting using increasingly cheaper/faster/better equipment that can be had at Best Buy, it doesn’t “scale” well, and is completely impractical for reaching the tens of thousands of customers Harmon envisions gathering to the Aristotle fold.

“If you’re in the coffee shop, you’re fine, but if you’re across the street at the pizza joint, you’re not fine,” Harmon said. “It’s cool while you’re sitting there, but it doesn’t provide the kind of service we at Aristotle are looking to provide in the coming years, which is to replace a DSL or a cable connection with something wireless.”

Along with many of the line-of-sight problems pointed out by Murders and Hern at World Lynx, Harmon sees the lack of frequencies dedicated specifically to wireless technology as a major stumbling block to further advancement. The problem, Harmon said, is that current wireless Internet technology works in a very narrowly-defined spectrum of radio frequencies — the same spectrum utilized by everything from cordless phones, to baby monitors to microwave ovens (which is why, Harmon said, the Wi-Fi signal in a coffee shop often cuts out every time someone wants their scone warmed up in the microwave).

This lack of licensed spectrum — something that can only be cured by action by the FCC — is much of the reason why major wireless carriers are reluctant to spend millions on equipment. As it stands now, Harmon said, if somebody puts up a wireless access point they bought at CompUSA next to your million-dollar Wi-Fi tower and it lays your customer’s signal low, tough luck. “It’s a tough risk to take for a business,” he said.

Harmon’s already fast-talking gets a little faster, however, when he begins talking about the coming technology that he said promises to sweep away many of the pitfalls about current Wi-Fi access: Wi-Max.

Designed as a replacement for Wi-Fi, Wi-Max has been in limbo for the past few years as a group of industry leaders try to pound out the standard. Faster, cheaper, with more density of coverage and fewer of the line-of-sight problems inherent to Wi-Fi, Wi-Max is, Harmon says, the “great promised land off the future” — the system that will finally make wireless internet access profitable enough for telecom companies and ISPs to begin transforming America into a wireless society.

“If you were planning on spending $100,000 on gear to get 500 subscribers up and running, with Wi-Max, you’ll find that those subscribers can go ten times faster on Wi-Max or you can put more subscribers on that system with Wi-Max because it will deliver data faster down the same given frequencies,” he said.

While waiting for Wi-Max (which has seen several false alarms that it was about to be ratified in the past two or three years), Harmon said that much of the wireless Internet industry is in a kind of limbo, with the manufacturers of commercial-grade equipment unwilling to “roll the dice and hope they’ve guessed the standard right.” Even his own company hasn’t been immune to this wait-and-see attitude, Harmon admits. In 2003, Aristotle seriously considered putting up Wi-Fi towers, with the hopes of offering much of Little Rock high-speed wireless Internet access using current technologies.

“Even then,” Harmon said, “the talk of Wi-Max was, it’s coming, coming, coming, stand by. If we did that, we’d be scrambling to ever pay that equipment off, because people who wait until Wi-Max comes out are going to be able to hang the same gear out there but they’re going to be able to offer a lot faster Internet, and they’ll have enough bandwidth that people can do away with cable TV and get their video over the Internet. It would have put us in a seriously bad marketing situation.” The good news, Harmon said, is that most industry experts expect the Wi-Max standard to be ratified in the summer or fall of this year. That means carrier-grade, tower-mounted equipment could be available in early 2006. And once the towers start going up, Harmon said the cost of high-speed Internet would go down for everyone, including those with DSL and cable modems.

“Right now, our prices are artificially high,” when compared to the rest of the industrialized world, Harmon said — a situation caused by an agreement a few years back between the FCC and the “Baby Bells,” which set the cost of high-speed Internet access at $40 a month. “That’s why Comcast gets $40 a month: because they can,” Harmon said. “There’s not a true free-market economy in how we deliver high speed Internet to residents. But with Wi-Max, that playing field is getting ready to get leveled.” For laptop owners, this means surfing the same Internet connection at work or play; offices where people can share computerized presentations with co-workers in the break room; and students chatting in real-time with their teachers and classmates on the school bus home. In a residential setting, Harmon said, this will mean an unobtrusive antenna in the eave of your house, streaming Internet access to the laptop in your den without wires.

Of course, not everyone is as sold on Wi-Max as Harmon. Craig Murders at World Lynx, for one, sees Wi-Max as better than Wi-Fi, but still burdened with many of the same problems when it comes to trying to take wireless Internet to the masses.

“Within a small range, [Wi-Fi] can see through walls and stuff,” Murders said. “Wi-Max extends that range two to three times, but then, after that, it’s still going to have the same problems with line of sight. It takes the same idea that we have today and sort of expands it.”

For Harmon, however — a firm believer in the promise of Wi-Max — the wireless world is so close he can almost see it out his window. “The day is coming when you can put up a couple-three big towers and hook everybody up,” he said. “Give it time.”

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